The Catholic University of America
Sep 8 2010

Midterms 2010: Beware the Optimists

Posted by Matthew Green at 10:24 AM
- Categories: Government & Civil Society

By all accounts, things look bad for congressional Democrats in November.  National polls indicate that the party is a distant second choice for voters (most recently, this Gallup generic ballot survey which puts Democrats at an historic low).  In addition, polls at the state and district level show many incumbent Democrats doing badly.

Partly as a consequence of these polling numbers, analysts who examine individual House and Senate races paint a dire picture for the majority party.  Charlie Cook currently predicts that Republicans will win at least 35 House seats (they need 39 to win control of the chamber) and 7 to 9 Senate seats (they need 9 to tie and 10 to win the Senate).  Stuart Rothenberg sees 25 Democratic House seats and 5 Democratic Senate seats at least “tilting” towards Republicans, and another 13 Democratic House seats and 4 Senate ones as “pure toss-ups.”   The New York Times rates 12 House seats held by Democrats as moving to the GOP column, plus another 31 as toss-ups, while Real Clear Politics predicts that Republicans need only win a third of the 35 races it rates as toss-ups to take back the House.

Despite all of this, a number of commentators and Democratic leaders have refuted the idea that a Republican “tidal wave” election is poised to happen.  Most recently, Jim Kessler of the think tank Third Way argued in a Washington Post editorial that, because the political environment of this year differs in many ways from 1994 – the last midterm in which Democrats lost control of Congress and Republicans won huge numbers of seats – Democrats have less reason to fear an electoral tidal wave that will sweep them out of power.

I do not share that view.  In fact, most of the arguments made by Kessler and other Panglossian prognosticators are remarkably unpersuasive.  Here are three of them, along with the reasons why I think they make little sense:

1) Democrats are prepared for, and thus can mitigate, big electoral losses.  Kessler and some Democratic leaders argue that Democrats are in much better shape than they were in 1994 because, unlike then, they have known for months that the impending elections would be challenging to win.  (Leave aside the fact that a few Democrats did realize it – including, apparently, Kessler himself.)

The key word here is “can”:  advance warning is, at best, a necessary but not sufficient condition for stopping an electoral tidal wave.  By June of 1946, for example, the consensus was that Republicans were poised to win many seats in the House, perhaps enough to take over the chamber – a prediction that proved correct (they won 55 seats that year).  Take the analogy of a real tidal wave:  if you’re at sea, you may know the big wave is approaching, but that alone doesn’t mean you can survive the impact or get out of the way.

2) Democrats have more campaign funds than Republicans.  Money does matter for elections, though as I tell my students, it’s hard to know the extent of its influence on election outcomes.  (For one thing, stronger candidates tend to get more contributions and thus spend more money than their opponents, even though it was their skills and abilities, not their campaign spending, that made them winners.)

As important as funding is, history has shown that the party with a financial edge can never be guaranteed victory.  One need look no further back in time than 2006, when many Republican incumbents in danger of losing reelection outraised their Democratic opponents but still lost reelection.  (The House Republicans’ campaign committee raised $180 million for that election, versus $140 million by the Democrats’ committee.)  Again, to take the tidal wave metaphor:  you may have lots of money to build the sturdiest boat you can, but the impending wave may be so powerful that no boat, no matter how strong, could have survived it.

3) Democrats face weak Republican opponents.  Candidate quality does have an impact on election outcomes, and there are a good number of congressional races where Republicans failed to put up stronger candidates.   (Exhibit A:  Sharron Angle of Nevada, the error-prone candidate who may well steal defeat from the jaws of victory in her race against Senator Harry Reid.)

Yet oddly, no one seems to remember that in 1994, the election was so favorable to Republicans that even weak G.O.P. candidates defeated Democratic incumbents, including some seemingly untouchable ones.  (Some of my favorite Republican candidates who became “accidental” congressmen that year include political neophyte Michael Flanagan; Helen “canned salmon aren’t endangered” Chenoweth; Steve Stockman, an accountant who had briefly been homeless; and Fred “millionaires are upper middle class” Heineman.)  So if 2010 turns out to be a tidal wave election, candidate quality will mean very little in a lot of races.

Does this mean the Democrats are doomed?  I don’t like to predict election outcomes this early in advance, and while I think the safe bet is on Republicans cleaning the Democrats’ clock, two months is a long time in electoral politics.  Specifically, I can think of a few things that could make 2010 a better election year for Democrats than most expect – perhaps good enough that they could retain control of Congress, albeit by a much smaller margin than they have today.

First, some incumbents could find a way to tailor their image and campaign tactics so that they can appeal to enough local voters to overcome the national tide.  Though I’m skeptical many Democrats have the time or ability to do this, a few may be able to do so successfully.  One of them, Walt Minnick of Idaho, was on my list of “dead man walking” Democrats who I was certain would lose (his district is extremely conservative), but Minnick now seems likely to survive, thanks to his careful voting record and local politicking as well as a flawed opponent (see point #3 above). 

Second, Obama could “step up his game” to a much greater extent than he has this past month and provide stronger leadership on the national stage – and, where useful, in local districts and states – to gin up enthusiasm among Democratic voters and improve his party’s image.  Jim Kessler makes the same argument, and indeed, Obama has already started doing this.  I think Obama could help Democrats at least save their majorities in Congress – though others, including political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Norm Ornstein, argue that it’s unlikely to overcome deep voter unhappiness – but if Obama can at least help his own image, it could help Democrats insofar as presidential approval correlates roughly with midterm election results.

Third, there is always the chance for an unpredictable event, campaign-related or otherwise, to turn things around for the underdog party:  positive economic numbers, for instance, or big missteps by party leaders.  Obama, of all people, should know this:  his victory in 2008 was not certain until the economy (and especially the stock market) began melting down in September and early October, at which point voter preferences in several key states, including Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Indiana, began shifting in his favor.

But while anything is possible, the options for Democrats are limited at this late date.  There are a variety of explanations for the Democrats’ poor standing (see, for instance, Ron Brownstein’s and Nate Silver’s), but most of them involve things that are out of Democrats’ hands, like changes in income growth.  Furthermore, generic polls (like Gallup’s) are, with adjustments, fairly good predictors of election outcomes.  Election watchers would thus be well-advised to assume that things will go badly for congressional Democrats in November – and read up on the history of the Clinton presidency for a preview of what may come next.


Stephen Schneck

Stephen Schneck wrote on 09/09/10 3:48 PM

Were I advising DNC chair, Tim Kaine, my advice at this late hour would be three-fold. I'd be encouraging all House and Senate candidates to cut loose from the administration and even run against the administration's policies. I'd recommend using national party figures not to be promoting such policies but to try and drive up the GOP negatives. And, I'd be spending most of my money to promote Democratic turnout.

Were I advising the GOP and Steele, on the other hand, my argument would be to message for moderates and centrists--distancing the party from potential fallout from Tea Party enthusiasm. The money here should be spent on advertising to convince the electorate that the GOP stands ready to take up the weighty responsibility of governing the republic, thereby abandoning the fringe that appears interested in mere revolt.

Nice analysis, Prof. Green! I think you've nailed it.

Matt wrote on 09/13/10 1:40 PM

Good advice, Steve. I actually think some Democrats *could* win by tying themselves to the Obama administration, but it would depend on the district -- and whether the president can convince voters in the next week or two (!) that his policies were helpful, not harmful, to the country.

Incidentally, Nate Silver has just posted his predictions, based on a statistical algorithm, which as of today (9/13) predicts a highly likely 17-seat loss for Democrats (80-98% chance per seat), and possibly another 25 lost seats (60-78% chance per seat). That makes 42 seats and, if the GOP wins all of them (and only those seats), a *very* narrow Republican House majority.

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